Sports Nut

The Human Red Flag

Lance Stephenson is the most fascinatingly flawed player in the NBA.

Lance and LeBron.
Lance Stephenson facing off against Rashard Lewis of the Miami Heat during this year’s Eastern Conference Finals.

Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

In the spring of 2009, the New Republic’s Jason Zengerle went to Coney Island to write an elegy to New York City schoolboy basketball. The story’s subject, Abraham Lincoln High School senior Lance Stephenson, was the city game’s last best hope. On the chiseled shoulders of a talented and flawed teenager lay a heavy history of talent, hype, entitlement, and exploitation. Stephenson was New York City hoops, and he was all that ailed it. He embodied the hedonistic allure of the playground, and how it butted up against the upright obligations of Playing the Right Way.

Five years later, Stephenson is improbably still standing, the recent recipient of a three-year, $27 million contract from the Charlotte Hornets. Like most things in Stephenson’s young life, this deal comes with complications. Last season, Stephenson emerged as an almost All-Star, a key contributor on a playoff team with explosive offensive skills and shutdown abilities on defense. He is only 23 years old, making him an unusually valuable commodity in a league that does its best to limit the open-market mobility of its youngest stars.

But the most striking thing about Stephenson’s free agency was that the vast majority of NBA teams didn’t want him. By the time he signed on Wednesday, his options had reportedly dwindled to two: remain in Indiana with the Pacers, the only NBA team Stephenson has ever known and one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, or go to Charlotte, Michael Jordan’s middling vanity project, for fewer years and less money. Lance chose the latter, a strange decision from a young man who rarely makes other kinds.

The list of reasons that NBA teams might steer clear of Lance Stephenson is admittedly a long one. He has a history of serious criminal behavior and legal trouble. As a high school senior in 2008, he was arrested for groping a 17-year-old and pled guilty to disorderly conduct. In 2010, he was charged with felony assault, after allegedly pushing his girlfriend down a flight of stairs. The case was ultimately dismissed.

Stephenson has stayed out of the police blotter in recent years, and at present a cynic might submit that NBA teams are more troubled by his on-court choices than his off-court ones. Stephenson is a maddeningly inconsistent player, a gunner and gambler who will win and lose games with equal and seemingly arbitrary proficiency. Last season, he led the NBA in triple-doubles while posting a player efficiency rating below league average. His in-game erraticism goes well beyond X’s and O’s. As a seldom-used bench player, Stephenson infamously flashed a choking gesture at LeBron James during the 2012 playoffs. (The Heat went on to win that series on their way to James’ first NBA title.) Unvanquished, Stephenson was caught on camera this spring blowing into LeBron’s ear during the Eastern Conference Finals, a much-parodied moment of lunatic gamesmanship that was equal parts hilarious and bizarre.

In a professional sports culture perpetually terrified of “distraction”—as though we watch these games for any other reason—Lance Stephenson is a world-class disturbance, in every sense. He is the most fascinatingly flawed player in his sport, and has been since he was a teenager. Basketball prodigies in New York aren’t so much children as folk heroes, legendary before they’re even really famous. Stephenson’s alma mater, Lincoln High, has generated more prose than any high school this side of Sweet Valley. A generation before drawing the attentions of Zengerle and TNR, Lincoln was the setting of one of the most famous pieces of basketball journalism ever written, Darcy Frey’s “The Last Shot,” published in Harper’s in 1993 and expanded into a book a year later. The centerpiece of Frey’s story was the barely teenaged wunderkind, and future NBA All-Star, Stephon Marbury. A decade later, Lincoln point guard Sebastian Telfair graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, superimposed against a Coney Island backdrop. Months later, Telfair—Marbury’s cousin—became an NBA lottery pick.

Lance had next. He received his nickname, “Born Ready,” while playing at Harlem’s Rucker Park at the age of 15. Like so much else in Lance’s world, this was half-true. He was ready-made for the unreasonable designs of unreasonable people, starting with his notorious father, Lance Sr. And he did fulfill a destiny of sorts—no New York player had ever led his school to four consecutive Public Schools Athletic League championships, as Stephenson did between 2006 and 2009.

But if the game came readily, little else did. By his senior year at Lincoln, the kid who’d once been considered the top prospect in his age group was now shunned by college coaches wary of all that surrounded him. After a sordid recruiting process, Stephenson landed at the University of Cincinnati, where he stayed for one up-and-down season and then declared for the 2010 NBA Draft. He lasted well into the second round before being snatched up by the Pacers with the 40th pick—right after his hometown Knicks, picking 38th and 39th, passed on him twice. At 19, Stephenson bore the burden not just of New York but of every anxiety in American sports, a 6-foot, 5-inch shorthand for shady influences and poor decisions, greedy entitlement complexes of men young and old, a cautionary tale of “too much too soon” even though he’d yet to earn a dollar playing basketball.

Stephenson was a has-been before he’d even played a professional game. And then he did the one thing he wasn’t supposed to do: He developed. By midway through this past season, he’d become one of the NBA’s most promising young players. He was at times the best—and more often the most domineering—player on a title contender.

Then, suddenly, the Pacers stopped winning. After starting 33–7, Indiana fell to 23–19 over the back half of the season. Thus ended the Lance Stephenson redemption story. He publicly complained about not making the All-Star team and was accused both privately and publicly of hogging the ball and gunning for stats in advance of free agency. (When his teammate Roy Hibbert referred to “selfish dudes” in the locker room, he was reportedly talking about Stephenson.)

The Pacers pulled it together enough to make the Eastern Conference Finals, losing against the Heat in six games. During that series Stephenson was, for better and worse, the most reliably compelling player on a floor that included LeBron James. He averaged 40 minutes a night and scored in double figures in five of the six games, and at times appeared unstoppable. He also trash-talked James relentlessly, then accused him of “weakness” after a Game 3 Heat victory in which James had scored 26 points to Stephenson’s 10. (James promptly went out in Game 4 and hung a 32-10-5, in another Miami win.) He committed ill-timed and egregious fouls, antagonized the referees, and often comported himself as though he had money riding on his own ejection. Stephenson’s behavior prompted Pacers president Larry Bird to publicly scold him to knock it off, then admonish him even more strongly in private—a meeting that Stephenson then curiously told reporters about.

Now he’s gone from Indiana and off to the vague NBA hinterlands of Charlotte, where he’ll bask in the tutelage of Jordan, an illustrious psycho in his own right and one of the few basketball folk on earth more accomplished than Bird. As always, he’ll be hard to root for and impossible not to. The sheen has once again come off Lance Stephenson, but the fact is that the sheen is always coming off Lance Stephenson—this is the perpetual state of the young man everyone wanted until they didn’t. One more last chance for Born Ready, the kid who never really had a first one.